[ 14. Jul 2009 ]

Libya: externalize the borders to externalize asylum?

Sent back to Libya: Photo from Paris Match

While more then 1.000 migrants has been deported to Libya from the Italian patrols, Tripoli is considering to sign the Geneva Convention. The first step to the externalization of asylum. Mass deportations and some resettlements to appease the EU coscience.


ROMA, 7 JULY 2009 - Macchi, Smalto and Buonocore. Write down these three names. They are the names of the three patrol boats of the Guardia di Finanza departed the 14th May, 2009 towards Tripoli form the port of Gaeta, after two weeks drilling, with 41 officers on board. They are ships of 90 tonnes and 27 meters long, with capacity to reach a speed of 43 nodes and to sail in the open seas. After being handed over to the Libyan Navy, they will be used to bring back to Tripoli all the migrants and refugees intercepted at sea. Soon they will be flanked by more patrol boats. The mission, of the duration of three years, will be based at Zuwarah, where 10 Italian officers have already been sent to upkeep the operational units, whereas some Libyan officers are to be located by the Operational headquarters of the Guardia di Finanza (Custom officers) in Lampedusa. The commander of the Guardia di Finanza, Cosimo d'Arrigo, has provided reassurances that the operations will be always carried on "in full respect of EU and international law". Shame that, precisely in the name of international law, collective expulsions towards Libya where condemned in 2005 by the :: European Parliament and by the European Court of Human Rights. The expulsions, it was declared, where in violation of the right to asylum and the prohibition of collective expulsions, particularly towards countries where there is the risk of torture. And in the name of these international norms many have sided against collective expulsions: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (:: UNHCR), the Commissioner for the Human Rights of the Council of Europe, :: Thomas Hammamberg, the civil society (:: Asgi, :: Cir, :: Arci, Save the Children, Centro Astalli, Caritas, Federazione delle Chiese Evangeliche in Italia, Medicines Sans Frontieres, Amnesty International, :: Migreurop, Remdh and many more), and even the :: Vatican.

Unfortunately, with no support whatsoever by the European Union. The European Commission vice president, Jaques Barrot, has in fact said that expulsions at sea are ":: common practice" in Europe. The European Parliament was already in electoral campaign, and could not go further than to send a request for "urgent explanations" to Barrot via the president of the Commission for Civil Liberties, :: Gerard Deprez. As for the European Court we shall see. The potential appellants - that is those expelled to Libya - are locked up in prison without any access to a lawyer. Nevertheless a lawyer, Anton Giulio Lana, member of the Directive of the Tribunal Union for the safeguard of human rights, has announced that he has collected :: 24 authorizations to appeal by those expelled, and that he will soon submit an appeal on their behalf to the European Court for Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The migrants taken back to Libya between the 7th of May and the 5th of July 2009 are already :: 1.122. The majority are Nigerian citizens, and in smaller proportion they are from Mali, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Bangladesh, Morocco, and Tunisia, but also around 100 among Eritreans and Somalis potential refugees. There are also about one hundred of women, who have been taken to the female section of the detention camp of Zawiyah, west of Tripoli, followed by their husbands as explicitly requested by IOM to the Libyan authorities. A lady has been admitted to hospital in Tripoli. A reporter from La Stampa, :: Guido Ruotolo, was allowed to visit the detention centre in Tuaisha, still under construction, in Tripoli. It is going to replace the old and notorious Fellah prison, demolished to make room to one of the construction sites for the re-styling of Tripoli. The :: photographs illustrate how good the structures are, but at the same time they hide the unacceptable conditions in the other camps where migrants are detained, and where the doors are not open to the international press. But it is not only the façade of Tuaisha that is new, the whole system is in rapid evolution.

Libya has accepted the funds from Italy and Europe towards the new camps and repatriation flights. Not only: for the first time the Libyan authorities have authorized the presence of :: IOM on the :: wharf, and of UNHCR, who have been present in Libya for years, and of Cir (Italian Refugee Council), who have started a research project in Tripoli. These agencies could be joined by the Red Crescent (equivalent of the Red Cross) to provide medical assistance in the wharf. The externalization of the border controls is already a reality. And the next step appears to be the externalization of the right to asylum.

The Libyan ambassador in Italy, :: Hafed Gaddur, has said it clearly: Libya is considering whether to sign the Geneva Convention on refugees. This is the first step towards externalization. The UNHCR had requested Italy to take back the refugees expelled to Libya. And the president of the Camera dei Deputati (similar to House of Commons) :: Gianfranco Fini had supported the idea to identify the refugees in purpose built centres in Libya, an idea that is rather liked also by the minister of Interior :: Maroni, who furthermore rises the stakes at European level: "I want to define the mechanisms so that refugees can be recognized directly in Libya, and the European Union can take charge of them at a later stage". That is, that the EU as a whole participate to projects of resettlement, to host the refugees recognized in Libya, a bit like it was experimented in 2008 at Misratah. A proposal that was discussed Friday 14th May in Rome with the participation of the representative in Italy of the UNHCR, Laurence Jolles. An important result, but not sufficient. And dangerous.

On one side, it is appreciable the opening of a humanitarian corridor for the refugees, who so far have been forced to risk their lives in order to enter Europe. On the other side, it is disgraceful that the waiting for the right to asylum may be protracted for years, in detention centres, in unacceptable conditions. And with a level of protection lower than that in Europe. In the meantime, from :: Mistrah, important news have arrived. In the month of March, about 200 of the 700 Eritreans detained for three years have been released after been recognized as refugees by the UNCHR in Tripoli. An important result, because it sets a precedent. Insufficient though, because every one of them is at risk to be arrested again in the raids in Tripoli, or at sea. The High Commissioner :: Gueterres had been clear nevertheless: the right to asylum is valid also in international waters. To the point that the Italian association of lawyers :: Asgi maintains that the captains of our patrols are under obligation to accept requests for asylum at sea, and carry the refugees on Italian territory. That the question of externalization of asylum is not a marginal question is demonstrable by the :: dat of Minister of Interior: 75% of those arrived by sea in Italy in 2008 applied for political asylum and 50% of them got a form of international protection. Will it be enough to accept a few hundred such refugees in Italy or Europe through resettlement project, to appease our conscience?

Article by Gabriele Del Grande, translated by Chiara Lauvergnac, published first on 07. July 2009 by ::